Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Date with Time

Deccan Herald. Sunday, 03, January, 2010

The Temple of Divine Caesar immortalized the greatest ruler of the largest empire in history, by inscribing his words ‘Veni, Vedi, Vici’ on the altar erected where his body was cremated. While each and every remnant of Roman imperialism that stretches across the Forum opposite the legendary Colloseum evokes strange feelings of awe and humility, this temple held my attention a moment longer than most.

Snippets and visions loomed large and after an emotionally draining experience of touring the Colloseum earlier, dreamy tales of each ruin in the Forum lofted me into ages most delectably drawn in Shakespearean reams.

Noting numbers that bore little relevance to him as ‘dates’, my son had already put forth a remarkable query to me as I dragged my very tired feet from pillar to shrine to palace fronts. A year later, the same question was asked of me, this time very clearly: why do we call a calendar so? What started with the simple intention of finding a quick-finder answer, became, even more quickly, a detailed and laborious trawl across some staggering history and reflection on man and his pursuits, of mind and its capability, of human existence and intent.

From January, through July and every fourth February of our present times, an ancient verdict keeps our busy lives on a track that remains consistent − all eventualities calculated and logically catered for. For, after he came, he saw and he conquered Imperial Rome, Julius Caesar made another conquest. A conquest as significant then, as it is now.

This fascinating story of past, present and continuous future, begins in ancient Egypt, picks its threads through various civilizations, withstands many political deviations of the Romans and after a long period of sustenance, finally settles along a more stable course only in 1582.

Through twists and turns around hundreds of pages of documents and legends, three constants remained − the natural cycles of days, months and years.

And though our perspective remains largely influenced by the shape Julius Caesar gave history the way we know it today, a very mature civilization, much before his time, and deep in scientific understanding, had become obsessed with harnessing the synchronies of the sun, moon and stars, to account for life in a tangible context we now call ‘Time’.

Standing firm in the second decade of this century, my perspective of dates and what we do with them took on a new high with every little detail I uncovered. In the next installment of this three-part series, I will get down to mean numbers, how their relevance changed incessantly and how even such a thing as accountable science can lose ground in the face of greed and misdemeanor.

A Date with Time – Part 2

Past inTense
What started as a quest to please my little son, had turned into a riveting study of times, and how ‘time’ itself came about. The calendar stands quietly measuring our efforts and noting its sequence. But great civilisations before the modern era carry their indelibility into our present. Every ‘day’ that we pass, is a testimony to their creed and a commemoration of their unbelievable knowledge. The heroes before our time remain: the Romans, the Greeks and the Egyptians.

The occults’ magic continues its weave – and I was looped in. As, I dare say, will you. So let the cat out and sink into your couch.

The number game
Indeed, the Egyptians have held secrets and talents as breathtaking as the pyramids and their virtually indestructible mummy inhabitants.

Behind their furrowed foreheads, totems and the like, their advanced knowledge in astronomy had already yielded the ‘Sothic’ year on the basis of their calculation that (yes, again) the earth took 365.25636 days to complete one revolution around the Sun.

This solar calendar that constituted just over 365¼ days had the familiar 12 months of 30 days each. Pretty close you’d think, but a round figure like that, left 5.25 days less than the deduced revolutionary period. So taking a very uncomplicated approach, they added 5 days every year, and one extra day on top, every four years. Impressed?

Now consider the proof of the system’s precision. The ruins of the Temple of Ramses II stand to this day at Abu Simbel. The statue of Ramses is placed among others’, 180 ft away from the only opening to the shrine. For more than 3200 years, this statue has been illuminated by the Sun on 22 February, every single year.

Here's the deal. If the minute difference of 0.00636 days per year (365.25636 - 365.25) had not been accounted for, this date would have changed from the original, many years ago. Over the 3200 year period, the discrepancy would have been of 20 days!

Still thinking? So were some others. Because even now, this placement did not fully align with an actual year. More exactitude followed with another grand civilisation − the Greek. One minor adjustment brought in the concept of a Leap year, adding a day to the shortest month, every four years.

Just think about the minuteness of this aspect and the magnitude of its effect on the dynamic of Time – something we have, ordinarily, grasped very little of, and taken for granted since ever.

Meddle men
Beyond their chiseled looks, there is at least one other reason why the ancient Greeks still evoke quiet reverence while Roman imperialists soar(ed) above the view of men and commanded servile fearfulness.

For however great the history that owns them, one gets quite a glimpse of what single, small minds can do when they meddle with things leagues beyond their tiny universes of pretense and flawed understanding.

Enter: The Romans − a mammoth era.
While other men of substance pursued their pertinent passions, Julius Caesar reinforced the Greek leap of day when the Romans re-structured the calendar during their rule in Egypt.

The consequences of this momentous re-formulation were substantial and the reason is a long-winded tale of multiple theories, incessant discoveries, personal vendetta and gross misuse of power.

wasteful, for, Romulus, the founder of Rome, had already devised a calendar with ten months, six of 30 days and four of 31 days, making a total of 304 days. This strictly lunar calendar started with March and ended with December. After a gap, the next year would start on a new moon to bring it back in sync with the lunar cycle.

What determined the length of that gap? The individual convenience of the most influential council of the time.

Numerous attempts were made at synchronising the lunar calendar with the solar cycle and in spite of political interferences and their natural ill effects, more changes continued. An extra two months were added − January in the beginning and February at the end (guess they had to accept that sun or no sun, winter too had to be accounted for).

But now, the luni-solar year had 354 days. The infamy of Roman oddities and all-encompassing superstition is common knowledge. So how could the calendar be exempt from its onslaught?! To undo the inauspicious effects of the even number, more days were added and deducted variously across the months, making the year 355 days long. Another modification changed the order of the months, so that February followed January. A deficit of 10 ¼ days resulted.

Think this: our local civic bodies and contract mercenaries are not in sole credit of the doing-and-redoing-of-the-done saga – its roots are in civilisations many centuries olde.

If that draws some comfort, prepare for a solution also: the intercalary period. A buffer of around 23 days, the Intercalans or Mercedonious, as it was called, was inserted in February, every alternate year, while five days were dropped in Intercalary days (its resemblance to the manner in which the road in front of our house was re-laid last week, is uncanny). What presented itself at the end was a rather compliant four year period, averaging 366 ¼ days per year. The one extra day was adjusted every 24 years, by dropping a Mercedonious month.

Power struggle
Funny we crib about economic recession and loss of jobs today, when these sires dropped whole months! But even that didn’t work, as this thoroughly complicated system still fell short of synchronising with the phases of the moon (snort away, New Moon fans). So what did they do? More mayhem − the decisions on additions and lengths of Intercalary months, became the onus of a panel of high priests. They must have been high indeed, for even at an age when an orbiting rocket was unfathomable, they imagined they could disregard the span of the very orbs that make us run ‘our’ orbits.

Though, on that account, not much has changed over the centuries, please remember, we are talking of an age of not just superstition and questionable pragmatism, but also of high volatility and incestuous power-mongery. These pontiffs and their unscrupulous political agendas flourished and abuse of office thrived (I did say, nothing much has changed). But this was beyond ridiculous - the inconsistencies caused the months to waver across seasons, so much so that by the time Julius Caesar wore the crown, the civil equinox was three months away from the astronomical equinox!

Being an hour late for a swearing-in ceremony where traffic is the deterrent, suddenly seems legitimate, doesn’t it? But Mr JC wasn’t all that complacent, after all. Neither was he completely blind, for that matter. Consultations with Alexandrian astronomers lead to abandoning the idea of aligning the months with lunar cycles. The farce miraculously faded and the year was reformulated as we recognize it.

Caesar was recognised too – the old togas in his senate honoured his initiative and named the sixth month, July, after him. More christening of months after rulers took place and finer logistics were addressed.

From the perspective of modern relevance, the Julian calendar, starting in 45BC, was configured as 365.25 days long and came to have, on a regular basis (keep breathing) 365 days across 12 months, with a leap year every 4 years, when February got longer. The year began in January, saw spring in March and contemplated fall in September.

The last part of this series will look into the only part that remained to be tackled: a way to chart each ‘day’ of those months. The influences on that formulation were as simple as they were practical. People, formed the focus; and their practice, the measure of all progression – each relative to the other.

A Date with Time – Part 3

Simple interest
The Sun and Moon were at last in viable synchrony and the broad framework of months had been charted. Politics, priesthood and science had all circumvented and tangled with each other repeatedly. But the finest details were yet to be worked out.

When there is civilisation, there is custom and trading – the basis of livelihood and society. Makes sense then, that even chronology should take its perspective from society itself and its daily labour.

With due attention to the detail of individual days, each month was divided into three simple points of reference.

The Kalends was the first day of the month. It was the day debts were due and interests were incurred. Books maintained to track payments were called ‘calendarium’ – our modern day ‘calendar’.

The intention behind my labour was met! My son’s question answered, I now ploughed on to find answers to questions of my own.

The Ides was the 15th day in a 31 day month and the 13th day in the other months. The Nones was the 9th day before the Ides, hence being either the 5th or the 7th of the month.

Countdown Conundrum
In tune with our penchant for countdowns, the Julian calendar calculated days inclusively backwards from one of the three points of reference.
So as per the Romans of yore, Christmas Day is on ‘VII kalends January’, my son’s birthday falls on ‘VIII kalends February’ and Teachers’ day would be the Julian ‘nones of September’.

Had he paid heed when the Soothsayer warned, 'beware the ides of March', Julius Caesar would have lived to learn the depths to which greed could take even the most trusted coterie. The 15th of March spelled doom in Shakespeare's play and was quite the reflection of what went on in Rome during those rather turbulent times.

Church bells ring
Waves galloped over waves of treachery and sinister ploys. Christ took birth and the basis of a new religion was trickling its way into disintegrating Roman dogmas. The Julian calendar recorded this advent and most of what we know of then and beyond, until the Christian ‘Church’ started gaining ground.

‘Time’ moved on fervently and in 1582, yet another problem was discovered. The calculation of the leap year would amount to nearly 11 days more in a thousand years, as the true calculation was not six hours over the 365 days in the Julian year, but five hours and 49 minutes.

Based on the motion of the earth around the sun, while the months bore no connection with the motion of the moon, the Julian calendar was reformed. Pope Gregory XII brought forward the Julian year by ten days. The 5th of October became the 15th of October.

This rule was then prescribed for all Christendom. Barring Russia and the Greek Church, most of the world moved toward adopting the Gregorian calendar.

The length of the year is 365 days, 5hrs, 48 minutes and 46 seconds and the time between two full moons is 29.53 days. There's a leap year every 4th year, where February carries 29 days instead of the usual 28. January, March, May, July, August, October and December have 31 days each and the rest have 30.

Though this still doesn’t stop the Blue Moon from appearing in January 2010, it is essentially the modern world calendar, where every page, however formatted, bears testimony to Egyptian exactitude, Greek genius, Julian grit and Christian endeavour.

And as we enter a new decade in our current century, instead of the Julian manner of looking back on things, thankfully, we count ever forward, anticipating the future. Happy 2010.